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John Zorn’s Acoustic Masada at Page Auditorium

What a set! The four players—Zorn (alto sax), Dave Douglas (trumpet), Greg Cohen (bass) and Joey Baron (drums)—came onstage briskly, got in position with a minimum of fuss as Zorn shouted something I didn’t catch, and immediately launched into a frenetic free-form piece, Zorn playing with one hand and jabbing behind his back with the other to direct the drummer. Grunge jazz, in the best sense of the word, all the way down to Zorn’s camo pants.

I haven’t listened to Masada before, and that’s been a real oversight on my part. In general I don’t either seek out or avoid Zorn’s music, and when it comes my way I tend to enjoy it for a while and then it loses me. A couple of years ago I heard his string quartet Cat O’ Nine Tails (Tex Avery Directs The Marquis De Sade). The first minute or two was great fun, maybe the highlight of the concert, and then the joke got old but the piece went on and on. With Masada the music was playful without that feel of self-conscious game playing—what I heard was distinctive but straight-ahead bluesy-bebop-on-a-camel alternating with exuberant free jazz.

I loved the way the band could cut from one mode to the other, and I appreciated Zorn’s attention to arrangement. Even Ornette Coleman, the clear and acknowledged model for Masada, tends to fall reflexively into the bebop formal mode of head-solo-solo-solo-head. That’s great in its place but it gets old when it’s habitual, and when I see a jazz group in concert I often find myself mentally shouting “Do Something!” at the horn players as they mill around and wait for the head out.

Zorn’s fingerprint is all over the concept and the tunes, and his exuberant leadership was a pleasure to see and hear. For me the standout player was trumpeter Dave Douglas, though. The fundamental divide between the two is that Zorn plays sounds and Douglas plays lines. Zorn careens and yodels and honks—there’s plenty of Ornette but not much Parker. With Douglas you can still hear the spirit of Clifford Brown’s buoyant lines. I tend to downplay the idea that the substance of music is the pitches but I’m still pretty attached to them, I guess. Zorn did play with great precision on the heads, often in a razor-sharp unison with the trumpet that was worthy of Parker and Gillespie.

The one thing that did bug me was Zorn’s bio.

Drawing on his experience in a variety of genres including jazz, rock, hardcore punk, classical, klezmer, film, cartoon, popular and improvised music, John Zorn has created an influential body of work that defies academic categories.

Does he really need a straw man like “academic categories” to make himself look edgy? Wouldn’t the pretentious mystification that comes next, about how he’s learned “alchemical synthesis”, “structural ontology”, “how to make art out of garbage”, etc., be enough? In the end he acknowledges a list of major figures in the American and European classical tradition (most of them academically certified), with a few oddballs thrown in to keep us off balance. None of that is a big deal—the bio in a concert program has no clear purpose anyways, so it ends up as either bragging or posturing, and at least Zorn keeps it short. What really bugs me is that he doesn’t mention the person whose work is the shoulders that Masada stands on—Ornette Coleman. Even if this is Zorn’s stock, all-purpose bio and he has acknowledged Ornette’s influence in other places, it’s still pointlessly disrespectful.